I was a shy kid.
Meeting new people was uncomfortable. I hated being the center of attention. Speaking in class was painful.
Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t described as shy. It just always was. And, being part of a relatively large family, I think it was easy to slip into a preordained role like that because it provided an identity. It distinguished me from my siblings, even if it wasn’t a particularly envious description. So I sort of accepted it as an immutable personality trait that would always define me. In doing so, I unknowingly closed the door on years of genuine happiness.
Like anybody else, I longed to be accepted and liked by my peers. I’m very fortunate in that I aways had friends, which is probably more a lucky consequence of growing up in the same school district from kindergarten through high school than anything else. But I quickly realized that I would never be conventionally popular because shy kids are generally tolerated, not celebrated.
And that’s when things got complicated. That’s when being shy went from being a neutral description to a negative indicator. And by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s too late. Kids and teachers have already labelled you. Your family has labelled you. You’ve been led to believe being shy is an unchangeable trait, so a panicked helplessness becomes your reality. In short, you’re stuck. I was stuck.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that writing has always been a passion of mine. Where else to put your thoughts and ideas but a piece of paper? Expressing myself out loud felt impossible growing up. At the time, I believed it was because I was shy. But the reality is that I was self-conscious. And, convoluted as it may sound, I believe it was a consequence of being labelled “shy” as a young child. Bear with me here.
Words shouldn’t be able to define you. They’re just a combination of letters, right? But they do. They absolutely do. Words have power. They create entire fictitious worlds in our most beloved novels and they can certainly alter our reality. Words are endowed with endless layers of nuance and emotional responses so our word choices very much impact others.
To me, “shy” is loaded with negative connotations. It implies fear. It suggests an anti-social nature. It’s something for which we often apologize.
“Sorry, she’s just a little shy.”
It’s often said harmlessly enough but what message does that convey to the little girl clinging to her mother’s leg? Or to the little boy whose heart is pounding as he enters a room full of new people? What are we communicating to our children when we so readily apologize for who they are? We are telling them that their behavior, and more importantly – their feelings, are undesirable. We are setting them apart as outsiders when inclusivity is already a struggle. We are failing to recognize their own unique value and setting them up for a lifetime of passive apologies and depleted self-worth.
All this may sound excessive but the effects of such repeated negative messaging are very real. To be blunt, it’s dangerous.
Instead of providing an explanation for why a child is reserved, perhaps we just don’t. Why should we? If it becomes absolutely necessary to address, perhaps we simply say, “He’s fine. It just takes him a few minutes to warm up.” Maybe we smile reassuringly at him and say, “Take your time. There’s no rush.” We could even take a few moments ahead of time to explain what kind of situation he may expect to encounter. Allowing a reserved child to process that information prior to being overwhelmed can make a huge difference. None of those situations construct limitations around a child and allow them to flourish at their own pace.
These solutions are so simple, almost deceivingly so, but I would argue that they are of vital importance; because, here’s the thing, feeding into the narrative that your child’s quiet nature requires explanation will only breed confusion and shame. It is taking a perfectly lovely attribute and twisting it into something ugly.
But when we acknowledge and validate our children, whatever their personalities may be, for who they are, we are building a foundation for success. Letting our quiet kids know that they are not defined by fear paves the way for the dreamers, the poets, the world changers. It fosters compassion. It encourages empathy. It builds confidence. It is essential.
When the term “shy” comes to define you, it’s easy to retreat into your shell. I know because I’ve been there. But the truth is, I’m not shy. I’m not sure I ever was. It took leaving home, stepping out of my comfort zone, traveling the world, and finding myself – my true self – to figure that out. I’m lucky because not everyone gets that opportunity. Am I reserved? Yes. Am I an introvert? Definitely. But I’m certainly not shy. And none of those three terms are interchangeable, which is something I wish I had learned much earlier in life.
You know what else I am? Strong, opinionated, passionate, and confident. For too long, a label of fear hid those qualities and kept me from realizing my full potential. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.
So goodbye “shy.” You no longer define me and you will never be used to define my children. I close the door on you forever.
**C also writes for POMP USA, a start up company promoting businesses owned by service members, veterans, and their spouses.